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Day Trips: Black Canyon of the Gunnison

Todd Hartley's picture

We all know that Aspen has everything. That’s why you live or vacation here. Great skiing, great shopping, great music, great restaurants. Golf, hiking, mountain biking, rafting. There really isn’t much need to go anywhere else. Still, though, if you come to Colorado and just visit Aspen, you’re missing out on a lot of what makes the Centennial State so spectacular. What you need is a day trip that will allow you to see the sights yet still sleep in your own bed. Fortunately, there are plenty of those to go around.

One of the most spectacular attractions in western Colorado is Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, a seldom-visited gem that must be seen to be truly appreciated. It’s a bit of a trek from the Roaring Fork Valley, at two and a half to three hours, but the drive is beautiful and uncrowded, and the destination is well worth the effort.

Starting in Aspen, take Highway 82 west to Carbondale and make a left onto Highway 133. Follow 133 through Carbondale, past the tiny hamlet of Redstone and up and over McClure Pass. On the far side of the pass, stay on the highway as it winds down a scenic valley past Paonia Reservoir and the funky little mining community of Somerset. A few miles past Somerset, the highway skirts the offbeat town of Paonia, eventually ending in downtown Hotchkiss, where it intersects Highway 92.

Take a left on 92 and go roughly 10 miles to reach the town of Crawford. A short distance south of town you will find Crawford State Park and its namesake reservoir. Just beyond the park, take your first right and follow the signs directing you to the north rim of the national park.

The main road to the Black Canyon accesses the south rim, leaving the north rim refreshingly deserted, and indeed, as you approach, you may start to wonder if you’re in the right place. The road turns to dirt, and all you can see ahead of you is what appears to be a low ridge of granite. Don’t be fooled. That low ridge is just the top of the cliff on the canyon’s far side. The true extent of the Black Canyon isn’t revealed until you’re practically standing at the edge.

When the road enters the park, take a left to reach Balanced Rock, an awe-inspiring point from which to survey the canyon. Park here and walk out onto the rock and soak up the view. What you’ll see is virtually guaranteed to take your breath away.

Though not as deep or as vast as Arizona’s Grand Canyon, Black Canyon is infinitely steeper and in many ways more dramatic. Carved out of solid black granite, the canyon walls are nearly vertical and include Painted Wall, Colorado’s largest cliff face at 2,700 feet high. At Balanced Rock, you’ll be standing about a half-mile directly above the Gunnison River, which appears as a thin ribbon far below.

If you’re feeling adventurous, just beyond Balanced Rock there is a trail that will lead you down to the bottom of the canyon. Be forewarned, however: the going is ridiculously steep and treacherous and should only be attempted by people in excellent physical condition. For a tamer option, drive back past the entrance road to the ranger station and the trailhead for Exclamation Point. This easy one-mile hike will bring you out to a stunning overlook with a great view back up the canyon to the south.